“You’re a hard man to find,” the gypsy named Wennt told him.
“Maybe I didn’t want to be found,” Hengist said, not even looking at the younger man, not telling him he’d spent the last two hours aboard the Broken Heart with Kritmann, Tory, and a few other acquaintances, thankfully excluding Goat, who none of them was terribly fond of. He’d even been told the story behind Goat’s “crew name”: while at port in Anelda, the “boys” had gotten the kid so drunk “his eyes were rolling in different directions,” as Kritmann put it, and each bet him a Solan he wouldn’t fuck a goat they spotted running loose in the street after dark, probably having busted out of a stall in the bazaar. He bragged that he would fuck anything that moved if he so decided, so the merry band of inebriates chased the animal through the nighttime streets, finally catching it. When the opportunity was presented, though, the young man had second thoughts. Now you wouldn’t be wanting to dodge out of your bet, would you, son? Kritmann had asked in his most menacing tone. Hell no! exclaimed young Mikkel, whereupon he whipped out his Worm-of-Woman-Chasing (Tory’s term) and earned the nickname Goat forever and always in rousing pirate spirit.
No wonder the kid seemed so strange.
And then Hengist was back on shore, walking a bit unsteadily, thinking he would go back to the palace and sleep for a while, get up towards dark and possibly find a wench. Tomorrow he would take the few pieces of jewelry he’d nabbed from the mercenary camp (most of the swag was coins) to Deekin and see what he could get for them. And possibly talk to Twist about that jeweller’s in the Upper City, and—
And then Wennt was walking by his side, saying he was hard to find.
“What the hell do you want, anyway?”
There was a serious look on the lad’s face. “King Brandon wants to see you.”
“Aww, shit,” Hengist muttered. He spat on the ground. So much for his little nap.
Had it been anyone else, Hengist would have told the messenger to tell him to stick it up his ass. But such wouldn’t do with Brandon Mer, King of the Gypsies. There was one gypsy king at any time, and he encompassed their dignity, their tradition, their passion — at least for the males. Somewhere there was a queen, unrelated to Brandon, supposedly the embodiment of gypsy women. Hengist had no idea where she was, didn’t know her name, wasn’t the least bit interested. But the king was a different matter. Hengist owed him his life.
If there was anyone in the world that the thief went out of his way not to offend, it was Brandon Mer. He respected the man, and his people, who showed more dignity than anyone else he’d ever known. The gods knew he had no fuckin’ dignity. Sometimes he wondered if he even had a right to live.
He knew the gypsies did.
So, for all these reasons, he went with Wennt in answer to the gypsy king’s summons.
“I consider you our friend,” the King of the Gypsies said, and dragged Hengist headfirst into all that was to happen.
Brandon Mer was a short, husky man who wore his authority like a well-tailored cloak. He was over forty, but his black hair and bushy mustache showed no sign of graying, and his black eyes were as sharp and powerful as they must have been twenty years before. He wore brown pants and tunic, with a wide leather belt from which a dagger hilt stuck, and a bright red scarf about his bull-neck. A floppy leather hat sat on his head; a loop of gold hung from his left earlobe. He was a strong man, with strong hands — both traits necessary to one who was leader to a people as rugged and complex as his.
“I hope I am worthy,” Hengist said honestly in answer to the older man’s statement.
Around them, as always, the gypsy camp was alive with activity. Nearby three children chased a black and gray cat through the grass. A young man leaned against a wagon wheel gently strumming a guitar. Several women conferred over a tremendous stewpot suspended above a fire. Others of the folk moved hurriedly about their affairs, glancing uneasily at Hengist, making preparations for the eve’s festivities.
“Come, we must talk,” Brandon told him. His eyes were very serious. Hengist followed him to the wagon he knew was the king’s, even without the bright ornamentation indicating it as such. The gypsy pulled the door open and motioned him inside.
Within, he found himself face to face with Brandon’s daughter, Aubrey.
“Hello, Hengist,” she said.
He turned away quickly, sitting, not wanting her to look right into his face, to see his scars. “Hello,” he said. Her presence magnified his feelings of ugliness, already so pronounced among these beautiful people. She herself was a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty whose every movement was the music of jingling jewelry. Her hands were thin, soft, fine-fingered, adorned with gold. They were all he could see of her now, folded in her lap like those of a lady.
Brandon shut the door, shutting the three of them off from the world.
“So let’s talk,” Hengist said, focusing his gaze on Brandon’s face.
Talk they did. The gypsy and his daughter told him of a Karojan named Lee, and the ill-fated pen dukkerin Aubrey had attempted for him. (Hengist shuddered as he heard about the cards coming to life; he feared magik in all its forms.) Of Lee’s flight from the camp. Of his amputation of the right hand of a lad named Dunkin, and of his escape.
“We want him dead,” Brandon said when their story was done.
Hengist swallowed, feeling uncomfortable. “Uh…I — I am your friend. I hope I am. But I’m only a thief. Not an assassin.”
The gypsy king shook his head. “You misunderstand me, my friend. I am not asking that you kill this man. I only ask you to find him for us. You are of your city; we are not. You can spread the word for us. Have your people watch for him. Someone will see him, as there are no other Karojans here as far as I know. Then, when you find him, we will have our own justice, in our way.”
Hengist nodded. “Okay. I’ll spread the word. That’s no problem.”
For the first time since Hengist had come to the camp, Brandon Mer smiled. “Your answer is as I hoped it would be. Thank you, my friend. From our hearts.”
“You’re welcome,” Hengist said, suddenly wishing he’d never heard of this man, never gotten into a position where anyone trusted him. Him.
But such wishes are pointless. So now he could only try to live up to the trust. As far as he could.
As far as he’d allow himself to, anyway.